Skill in writing consists of having at command an
array of synonyms, together with a sense of their fitness
- Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct (Harper & Row, 1975), page 39.
If you want a simple rule guaranteed to
improve your writing, try this: Avoid the words very, really,
quite, and thing. Rarely do these words contribute to a sentence. Consider E.B. White’s comment in Strunk & White’s
The Elements of Style (page xv):
“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page
23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.
This is good advice, but how is it possible to
one put one’s heart and soul into an imperative, but not really? Drop the
word really. Professor Strunk would not have been pleased.
Every time you see the word very, re-read the sentence without the word and
ask what has been lost - usually, nothing. Most people use the word very to
inflate the significance of what they are saying. All of us have been guilty
of this. But in careful writing, use the word very infrequently.
The common word thing can usually be replaced by a more explicit word. Even
in physics, material object is preferred to thing. All of the great writers
use these five words, but the novelist in particular is more interested in
effect than in the accurate communication of ideas. The phrase things that
go bump in the night is patently more readable in a story than collisions
with material objects in darkness.
After writing a business or scholarly document, take a close look at the
words you have chosen. Do they convey your ideas with precision and
accuracy? This is diction, using the right word. If a man watches his money
closely, does the author mean the man is frugal or miserly? Amazingly, often
the author himself often doesn’t know what he originally intended. So how
did he choose these words? The answer is always the same: superficial
thinking and incomplete analysis. Review of diction will force you to
reconsider your ideas. It is as much about word choice as it is about
Close attention to diction may also save us from pretentious writing (what
Jacques Barzun tags as fancy wordings). We have all heard certain impressive
phrases that probably were not pretentious in the context in which we heard
them. But when we insert these phrases into our own writing, the fit is
poor. They become conspicuously superfluous effects at the expense of good
ideas and effective communication. There is an old rule of English
composition that suggests that wherever authors find a particularly
impressive phrase in their own writing, they should strike it out and
rewrite it. Why? Because whenever the writing becomes more noticeable than
the ideas it expresses, the writing has become distracting.
Facility and adroitness with vocabulary are vital to a good writer. One way
to improve is to read books about words. When I left home to begin my
college career, my father gave me a well-thumbed copy of S.I. Hayakawa’s
classic Use the Right Word (Reader’s Digest, 1968). This reference remains
an invaluable tool in my diction arsenal. Here Hayakawa explains the subtle
differences between the words enmity, animosity, animus, and
Animosity and rancor are
stronger than enmity, but often less enduring. Animus
implies a feeling of ill will or antipathy so deep-rooted and intertwined
with character and background that a coherent explanation of its cause is
I might never use the word animus, but
I think I will always remember Hayakawa’s excellent description of it. This
book should be sold with a yellow marker!
We end with a tiny diction quiz. If you score more than 50 percent, you must
be self-taught. Or should I say autodidactic?
boisterous clerk aggravated/annoyed his customer.
2. Usually the speaker
implies/infers and the reader infers/implies.
3. Hemingway may be compared
to/with Steinbeck as a great writer.
4. If I was/were cheating (I
did not), then you would fail me. If he was/were cheating (he may
have cheated), then you should fail him.
To aggravate is to make a situation worse. Conditions are aggravated, not
2. Usually the speaker
implies, and the reader
imply is to hint or suggest, but not explicitly. To
infer is to draw a conclusion.
to. Use compared to for similarities,
and use compared
with for differences and contrasts.
and was. Use
were after if or
wish if the statement contradicts fact;
use was if the statement is true.
If you are interested in
further discussion of this topic, I recommend S.I. Hayakawa’s
Use the Right Word, Jacques Barzun’s
Simple & Direct, and Joseph M. Williams’s
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.
Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know. Please let
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